COVID-19’s impact on our relationship to the environment

On June 4, 2020, the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation held its first Emergence webinar, a series which explores how Canada and the world may emerge as we move beyond the COVID-19 crisis. With a focus on the environment, the first episode of Emergence drew more than a hundred attendees, including members of the Foundation community and members of the public.

Hosted by Robert Steiner, 2019 Foundation Mentor, the event featured Pierre Cloutier de Repentigny (2017 Scholar), Stéphanie Roy (2017 Scholar), Catriona Sandilands (2016 Fellow) and Neil Yeates (2018 Mentor) as panelists. Laure Waridel (2011 Scholar) and Phoebe Stephens (2018 Scholar) offered closing remarks.



A green economic recovery?

According to Stéphanie Roy, while our current “social contract” has prioritized short term economic interests at the expense of the environment, as we enter the post-COVID-19 recovery, governments must include environmental considerations as part of their economic planning and decision-making, and resist deregulation. She added that society also needs to think “in an interdisciplinary manner and consider different forms of knowledge, while thinking about future generations, not just the present”.


Pierre Cloutier de Repentigny underscored the potential for local citizens’ initiatives over action at the global or national level to bring about concrete changes to reduce our ecological footprint. In this regard, he raised the example of the Pact for Transition’s “101 ideas for a green and just recovery”, which was co-initiated by Laure Waridel in Quebec. He also touched on the important potential for ecological changes in our food system and the fact that people may be learning to consider more ecologically viable methods of food growing such as local agriculture.


As argued by Laure Waridel, it is time to “look at the long term” and realize that, while “there is no economy without the environment”, our health also hinges primarily on the quality of the environment.  


Environmental Impacts on Daily Life

Catriona Sandilands, who recently edited the anthology Rising Tides: Reflections for Climate-Changing Times, remarked that most people will not understand or value environmental issues until they affect their daily life. She pointed to COVID-19 as an example of an issue radically changing the way we think, live, and interact with each other once the problem becomes local. She said that while some experts are linking the arrival of COVID-19 to deforestation and other forms of environmental degradation which are conducive to the rise of diseases transmitted from animals to humans, COVID-19 is demonstrating that environmental issues are not abstract and can impact our daily activities from our ability to go for a walk in a park to buying groceries at the store.

Neil Yeates observed how COVID-19 has also changed our interaction with the environment as people now “slow down and appreciate the environment in a different way” in this time of home confinement. Similarly, Phoebe Stephens commented that the pandemic has forced us to pay more attention to our environment at a personal level, making us “aware of the connection between our health and that of the environment”.